The Chronicle Review

Literature for Real

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle; Homer from Newscom; Picasso by Ralph Gatti, AFP, Getty Images; Michael Moore by Chitose Suzuki,AP Images; King Tubby from GAB Archive, Redferns, Getty Images; Trent Reznor by Karl Walter, Getty Images

March 07, 2010

Thirty years ago, I majored in literature without being required to read a single nonfiction text. Of the 200 books I had to master for my M.A. prelim exam, exactly two (Walden and Black Boy) were nonfictional. Since then nonfiction's standing may have improved inside academe and beyond, but only marginally. On those proliferating lists of greatest writers, the novelists, poets, and dramatists remain utterly dominant.

Nonfiction has long been treated as the lutefisk on the literary menu, unlikely to be the special of the day. The genre emits a whiff of the déclassé, served (especially in literature departments) with a garnish of condescension. The problem starts with the word: Like "childless" (why not "child-free"?), "nonfiction" packs a lot of social judgment. Nonfiction may be real, but in matters of creativity, it's not quite the real thing.

I read a decent amount of non-nonfiction. I could certainly compile a list of my top 100 novels, but I could reel off my top 100 nonfiction books in a quarter of the time. Fine writing, no matter the genre, remains fine writing. However, given the choice between reading a middling novel and a middling work of nonfiction, the latter wins every time, offering at least some compensatory lode of information. I am the kind of reader—and we are legion—who is a sucker for the aura of the real.

Two zesty, ambitious, polemical new books—Ben Yagoda's Memoir: A History (Riverhead) and David Shields's Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (Knopf)—signal that nonfiction is pushing for greater scholarly respect. Are we witnessing the beginnings of a palace revolution, as reality genres—literature's foot soldiers—start clamoring to have their creativity treated with the seriousness it deserves?

Yagoda is a charismatic writer who can shoehorn into a single persuasive sentence St. Teresa of Avila and Britney's mom, Lynne Spears. In chronicling the shifting tastes in memoir from St. Augustine to Augusten Burroughs, he demonstrates how many of the passions swirling around confessional writing's methods and morality today have been swirling for centuries. Here's Michel de Montaigne, in an essay published in 1595: "Many things that I would not care to tell any individual man I will tell the public." John Lockhart, Sir Walter Scott's biographer, deplored in 1827 "the mania for this garbage of Confessions, and Recollections, and Reminiscences."

Memoir merits reading just for Yagoda's superb excursion through memory science and for his lucid account of how, between Augustine and Rousseau, a spiritual mea culpa turned secular: From Rousseau, in the 18th century, onward, the act of confessional writing assumed a therapeutic, conscience-salving role, independent from (if often parallel to) divine forgiveness.

As a literary historian, Yagoda's instincts are Linnaean. He loves to classify: genus, species, subspecies. We learn that the "normative memoir" (normal childhood, parents, pets, etc.) was all the vogue in mid-20th-century America. We learn about "reticence by consensus" memoirs, which prevailed in Victorian times; about his-her "dueling memoirs"; and about contemporary micromemoirs (six words max) that were foreshadowed by an early-20th-century American taste for "lifelets."

But Yagoda's neat categories sometimes merely stereotype. For example, he divides the contemporary British memoir into two types: the B-list celebrity memoir and the misery memoir. "The extreme misery memoir is a particular and somewhat alarming British taste, like Marmite or mushy peas." Yet many of the most arresting British memoirs—by Caroline Steedman, Derek Jarman, Alan Bennett, and Lorna Sage, or like Hazel Carby's forthcoming Child of Empire—involve memoirists writing at an angle to their society's literary mainstream. Something larger than individual emotional states (misery, anger, happiness) is at stake. If scenes of wretchedness appear, they do so in counterpoint to something profound that Yagoda's categories obscure: a social depth of field. Misery sounds like narcissistic wallowing, as opposed to the more taxing task of writing into being lives with little or no literary precedence—lives that are both particular and, in their striving to bring hidden histories out from under the shadows, achieve an exemplary force.

Oddly, for all his immersion in the memoir's compelling history, Yagoda ends up selling short the form's protean creative energies. His lengthy disquisitions on hoax memoirs—by ersatz Native Americans; by non-Jewish, non-Holocaust survivors; by imitation slaves—overshadow his more glancing exploration of the memoir's diverse aesthetic achievements. As fraud's overfascinated chronicler, Yagoda constructs a history skewed toward scandal; his method and tone sometimes feel complicit in diminishing the form.

Every creative medium attracts both the adept and the ham-fisted. Memoirs, to be sure, can be awful—marred by self-aggrandizing self-abasement and a 12-step plot plan that frog-marches us from abjection to absolution (as bestowed by the Almighty or Oprah's book club). But to focus on memoiristic mendacity distracts from the genre's more pressing imaginative challenges. I face these challenges in undergraduate workshops, where I have to disabuse novice nonfiction writers who expect brownie points for keeping it real, as if an honest attempt at probity were a self-vindicating aesthetic. What you write may be true, but (absent verbal flair, suspense, some sense of quest) it may also be truly bad writing. By semester's end, the sharper students recognize that plodding verisimilitude won't get them as far as engagingly shaped, inhabited uncertainty.

My tastes trend toward nonconformist nonfiction; I revel in the memoir that revels in impurity. Not because some author has actually—yes, in real life!—gone carnal with his corgi, but because the most searching memoirs (by, say, Amitav Ghosh, Antjie Krog, Amitava Kumar, Jenny Diski, James Baldwin, Esther Woolfson, and Donald Hall) scavenge for invigorating ways to trade body fluids with other forms: essays, travel literature, polemics, ethnographies, histories and oral histories, journals, literary criticism, graphic memoirs, aphorisms, documentary photography, literary journalism, and public science writing. Yagoda's preoccupation with the memoir's relation to fiction is ample subject for a book, but I found myself wishing that he'd gestured toward the memoir's mongrel relations with a wider spread of genres.

It's the fate of any pioneering study that we want it to answer more questions than one book can sustain. While Yagoda writes wonderfully about Gutenberg's historical impact on the circulation of—and appetite for—stories about the self, he doesn't engage the contemporary memoir's technological milieu: all those informal micromemoirs tweaked for Facebook, YouTube, cellphones, blogs, and Webisodes. The world, the text, and the critic in 140 characters or less.

David Shields's punchy manifesto in defense of documentary creativity—against what he sees as the novel's anemic anachronism—takes in a wider sweep of contemporary reality genres, from the memoir and lyric essay to cinéma vérité, karaoke, hip-hop, and Project Runway. Less historical than Yagoda, Shields is more alive to the technological rumblings shifting the ground beneath our artistic feet. He's attuned to a world in which writers must adapt or die in an age of diminished glamour surrounding literary product. The novel of plot and character, by his lights, is an inherently nostalgic form, a Victorian holdover inadequate to the imaginative challenges our zeitgeist poses.

While Yagoda is an instinctual taxonomist, Shields is a flamboyant aphorist. He has assembled a montage manifesto from 618 epigrams, assertions, and sound bites, ranging in length from three words to one paragraph. His method reminds me of the former Microsoft executive Linda Stone's assertion that we live in an age of "continuous partial attention." I read Stone's "partial" in a double sense: Ours is an age of opinionated inattentiveness and, as such, an age for which the aphorism is ideal. That instinct underlies Reality Hunger's episodic design: The units of thought are so small that you can start the book anywhere. Yet, en masse, Shields's aphoristic shards create a comprehensive argument against the novel's superiority and in favor of nonfictional creativity.

Reality Hunger is an exhilarating smash-up: Insights from Thucydides bump up against the wise words of King Tubby, Picasso, Nine Inch Nails, Michael Moore, Homer, the filmmaker Lars von Trier's "Vow of Chastity," Kierkegaard, and Kodak EasyShare's fun effects.

Shields, an English professor at the University of Washington, declares that he hates quotations, but what he really hates are quotation marks. If you read his endnotes (something he discourages), you discover—as you may have already surmised—that many of his most glittering assertions have been lifted from other artists. Back in the mists of time, we would have called this theft; now it's just another lively display of culture as sampling. Crucially, Shields has the brio to create convincing bridges among his plunderings.

As in:

"The life span of the fact is shrinking: I don't think there's time to save it."

"Memory: the past rewritten in the direction of feeling."

"Everything I write, I believe instinctively, is to some extent collage. Meaning ultimately is a matter of adjacent data."

"Genre is a minimum-security prison."

Only from the endnotes do we learn that the first assertion derives from John D'Agata and the second from Mark Doty, while the third and fourth are Shields's own inventions.

It's a measure of Reality Hunger's resonance that a writer as celebrated as Zadie Smith published an advance rejoinder months before the book appeared. Smith, herself recovering from a bout of "novel nausea" (during which she completed an essay collection), mounts a riposte to Shields's attack on the well-wrought novel and his exaltation of the lyric essay. But I see mostly positives in his passion for that hybrid form, which, he explains, "takes the subjectivity of the personal essay and the objectivity of the public essay and conflates them into a literary form that relies on both art and fact, imagination and observation, rumination and argumentation."

The lyric essay breaks open stale oppositions between fiction and nonfiction, reminding us that the finest essayists borrow from poetry as well. The term also does an end run around that dread notion, nonfiction. But to my ear, "lyric essay" sounds a bit too fusty (Wordsworth meets Hazlitt) to breach the battlements of 21st-century technologies.

Shields's screed against the novel comes, rather startlingly, garlanded with praise from novelists like J.M. Coetzee, Rick Moody, Jonathan Lethem, Charles Baxter, and Tim Parks. Has mass masochism broken out in the fictional firmament? I read their enthusiasm as a measure of how Shields, beyond his impatience with the traditional novel, challenges artists to respond more inventively to the threats posed by cultural distraction, aesthetic inertia, and technological changes arriving at breakneck speed.

For someone so eloquent about laureates of the real (from Montaigne and Emerson to Joan Didion, W.G. Sebald, and David Foster Wallace), a few words would have been welcome on the economic real deal for artists in our recombinant age of sampling, in which the income available from creative products is, for most, diminishing rapidly. How does that play out for artists (verbal, musical, visual) who live off the rails of the tenure track? Consequence A: poverty in an economy of volunteer or semi-unpaid creativity. Consequence B: too much of society's creative space relinquished to trust-fund bohemians masquerading as slum dwellers.

That said, Reality Hunger is a work of virtuoso banditry that promises to become, like Lewis Hyde's The Gift for earlier generations, the book that artists in all media turn to for inspiration, vindication, and altercation as they struggle to reinvent themselves against the headwinds of our time.

Together, Shields and Yagoda should help reinvigorate debates about what I'll still be calling (for lack of a better term) nonfiction. Both writers are committed to a public voice (rather than cultural-studies sludge-speak); their impact should reach deep into academe and beyond.

A re-estimation of nonfiction is long overdue. Year after year, literature departments advertise, with exasperating somnambulism, for specialists in that trusty triumvirate—novel, poetry, drama—without ever seeking out a nonfiction hire. Sure, some M.F.A. programs employ nonfiction writers to teach their craft, but nonfiction scholars in literature departments? If they exist, it's by dint of determined self-metamorphosis: Teaching nonfiction is seldom what they were expressly employed to do.

So how about it? We need more hiring and teaching in the history, politics, and aesthetics of nonfiction, not least as the genre engages adjacent literary and cultural forms and, more broadly, nonfictional self-expression within the digital humanities.

Not long ago, I traveled to the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association with a search committee, looking to fill a 20th-century-literature position. On the first day, candidates talked unremittingly about novels, so to mix things up I asked a midafternoon interviewee: "Does your argument about late-modernist style have any bearing on nonfiction?"

"You mean, you mean, reportage? Well ... " His spectacles slid an inch and a half down his nose, which twitched as if someone in that airless Marriott suite had broken wind.

Reportage? Yes, that—and so much more.

Rob Nixon is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He is the author, most recently, of Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, forthcoming from Harvard University Press.